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The Brothers Karamazov: Part One

April 8, 2010

It’s time to discuss Part One of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I’m reading with a group hosted by Dolce Bellezza. First of all, and I know regular readers are probably tired of hearing this, I must sing the praises of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you’re reading Russian classics in translation, they’re as close as you’re going to get to the original. Period. So don’t waste your time with other editions if there’s a P&V available!

This is my second full-blown experience with Dostoevsky; I read Crime and Punishment (also translated by P&V) ages ago, back in 2005. (I’ve also read excerpts from some of his works in Russian, but that’s such a different experience!) I loved C&P, so I went into Brothers Karamazov (BK from now on) not knowing anything about the storyline but expecting to enjoy myself. And so far I definitely am!

The narrator of BK has an easy, down-to-earth style that makes the book really readable. Plus, before we’re plunged into the philosophical debates and love triangles, Dostoevsky takes about thirty pages to introduce the ‘family.’ We meet the irascible father, Fyodor Pavolovich, hear about his two marriages, and meet his three sons: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei. We also meet some of the monastery officials, and later the household’s servants. Since each character feels unique, with his own quirks, it’s pretty easy to tell who’s talking, which is good because there’s a ton of dialogue!

From the first page, I simply revelled in the Russian-ness of it all. :D From the way the brothers talk to each other, to the newly freed serfs, to the Holy Fools, to the brothers of the monastery, I loved every word of it. One of my favourite things about Dostoevsky is the way that he mixes philosophy and fiction without being didactic. In BK, Ivan is an atheist with strong socialist leanings, while Alyosha (have I mentioned that’s one of my very favourite Russian nicknames?) is a firm believer in God and follower of an Elder monk at a nearby monastery. And various other characters take different sides, or debate with them, leading to wonderful discussions that really capture the Russian intellectual mood of the time.

I also love that religion is front-and-center in the book. There’s a wonderful scene between Alyosha’s elder and the various peasants who have come to meet with him. As he tries to help them through their difficulties and sorrows, I could pretty much ‘see’ what was happening in front of me. The mention of holy fools is interesting too, since I’m always fascinated by those who live on society’s fringes. In particular, I enjoyed the brief chapter (3 pages) describing Lisaveta, which seems to capture the essence of the holy fool issue in simple but powerful terms.

She walked into strangers’ houses and no one turned her out; quite the opposite, everyone was nice to her and gave her a kopeck. When she was given a kopeck, she would accept it and at once take it and put it in some poor box in the church or prison. When she was given a roll or bun in the marketplace, she always went and gave this roll or bun to the first child she met, or else she would stop some one of our wealthiest ladies and give it to her; and the ladies would even gladly accept it. She herself lived only on black bread and water. She would sometimes stop in at an expensive shop and sit down, and though there were costly goods and money lying about, the owners were never wary of her: they knew that even if someone had puts thousands down and forgotten about them, she would not take a kopeck.

The fact that Dostoevsky includes a range of religious experiences, from the monastery to the holy fools, from the most informed debates to simply frankness, makes the book great fun to read.

But it’s not all intellectual fancy schmansy. ;) There’s always Fyodor there to tell inappropriate stories, as he seems to revel in his debauched lifestyle. And as I mentioned before, there are a couple love triangles. The two women involved are Ekaterina Ivanovna, highly born and engaged to Dmitri, and Grushenka, a ‘kept woman’ who both Dmitri and his father (ewww) lust over. In fact, Part One ends with a scene between Katya and Grushenka that could rival daytime tv! And of course, there are money problems. So this is a novel pushed on as much by the day-to-day problems of its characters as by ‘ideas’.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I wanted to say, but my post is already quite long! So I’ll just end by encouraging anyone intimated by Dostoevsky to go out, get a Peaver & Volokhsnky translation, and prepare to be delighted. I can’t wait to see what Part Two brings!

Just out of curiousity, do you have any translators you absolutely adore? I’d love to know who they are!

51 Comments leave one →
  1. tuulenhaiven permalink
    April 8, 2010 6:26 am

    I’m really impressed with Peaver and Volokhsnky so far, although the ‘readableness’ of the book surprised me, and that’s due to Dostoevsky’s down to earth narrator. I’m pleased that P & V could bring that out in their translation. I’m definitely enjoying the mix of ideas and action. It’s interesting that the book was written as a serial – you can kind of tell. Each chapter seems like a mini story. I haven’t noticed this so strongly in other works that were serialized.

    • April 8, 2010 4:59 pm

      I agree that it feels like a serial work! :)

  2. April 8, 2010 6:37 am

    Translators – where would we be without them? I like Peaver and Volokhonsky and absolutely love Margaret Jull Costa, who I’ve featured on my blog. She translates Spanish and Portuguese works.

    • April 8, 2010 5:00 pm

      Oh-I’ll go read about her on your blog then! :)

  3. April 8, 2010 6:53 am

    I will look for this translation. I’ve been thinking about starting this one since I read C&P last year. I loved Crime and Punishment.

    • April 8, 2010 5:01 pm

      They’ve translated a lot of Dostoevsky’s work, so I’m sure after BK, I’ll be reading more of him! :)

  4. April 8, 2010 7:24 am

    I have started this book twice, but have ended up setting it down both times. Your post has inspired me to give it another try, but only when I can devote my full attention to it. Unlike you, I had a difficult time keeping the characters straight. I need my notebook and pen with me at all times!

    • April 8, 2010 5:02 pm

      Which translation do you have? A lot of cheaper versions use Constance Garnett, who was a Victorian who translated a ton of Russian lit. But she always make the English sound the way she thinks it should, instead of reflecting the way different authors use different Russian. So that might make a difference!

      Also, if you don’t know the ‘rules’ about Russian nicknames, I bet getting a cheatsheet online will make it a lot easier to keep track of!

  5. April 8, 2010 9:59 am

    I read this 10 or 15 years ago & remember loving it, but don’t remember much else about it! I should revisit it one of these days, especially now that the lovely P&V translation is out – I think I read an Andrew McAndrews translation.

    • April 8, 2010 5:03 pm

      This was actually the first book that they translated, back in the early 90s. :) But it sounds like a reread is in order!

  6. April 8, 2010 12:10 pm

    I’m glad P&V is the praised translation. I’m read their translation of C&P right now and I”m glad to know I’m close to the original.

    I don’t know anything about ancient Greek, but I’ve heard so many praises about Fagles I’ve been seeking out his translations for all that old stuff.

    • April 8, 2010 5:03 pm

      I’ve heard Fagle praised quite a bit too! I don’t think I’ve actually read any of his translations yet though.

  7. April 8, 2010 1:32 pm

    I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation as well and I really enjoyed it. Such a great book. Amusingly, Alyosha is one of my favorite Russian nicknames as well. =)

    • April 8, 2010 5:04 pm

      My other very favourite is Kolya. If I have a son, will totally name him Nicholas and call him Kolya. :D If I could get away w/ naming one Alexei and calling him Alyosha I would, but I think that’s too close to Alexi.

  8. April 8, 2010 1:46 pm

    Perhaps I should try C&P again with your favored translators. I read it years ago and would like to try it again.

  9. April 8, 2010 2:11 pm

    I loved the P&V translation of Anna Karenina! Your post makes me wish I could read along, too, but I’m participating in Jill’s Wuthering Heights Wednesday read-along right now. Will enjoy following your progress though.

    • April 8, 2010 5:04 pm

      I love their translation of Anna Karenina too! It’s one of my very fave Russian novels. :D

  10. April 8, 2010 3:36 pm

    Gregory Rabassa translated a lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, and is fantastic. I remember when I first read another translator and couldn’t figure out why it sounds so wrong. Marquez actually praised Rabassa himself, saying that he wrote them in English better than the author ever could have done himself (Marquez apparently does speak English, just doesn’t write in it)

    • April 8, 2010 5:05 pm

      Really? That’s so interesting! The only Spanish to English translator I’ve heard of is Edith Grossman. It sounds like I should keep an eye out for Rabassa’s work!

  11. April 8, 2010 3:49 pm

    The only other work I’ve read by Dostoevysky is Crime and Punishment, a Signet classic paperback translated by Sidney Monas (whoever he is). I so much perfer the P and V translations, which I first read with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Having been a great admirer of Russian classics since I was in high school, and taking more Russian literature courses in college than any other, I’m amazed I haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov yet. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do so with you and the others in this read along. I love the Russian atmosphere Fyodor creates in his novel; I feel as if I’m living there with them. But, best of all is what you said, “I also love that religion is front-and-center in the book.” That’s my favorite aspect so far, and surely a large reason why Madeleine L’Engle called this her favorite book.

    Although, you can’t cut him short on suspense. I’m in Part 3 now, and I can’t put it down (after a rather tedious time in Part 2).

    • April 8, 2010 5:06 pm

      I love Russian lit, so I’m surprised I haven’t read Brothers Karamazov yet either! :) I hope I enjoy Part Two more than you though. hehe

  12. April 8, 2010 4:13 pm

    The translation really makes this for me. Had a little time to do some comparisons with other translations, and the difference is huge. The accessibility of the text is as much a function of the work of P & V as it is the narration I think.

    Lydia Davis and Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer are all genius translators in my book.

    • April 8, 2010 5:07 pm

      You know, I just checked out Dostoevsky’s Russian (for free here), and it really is written in a really accessible style w/ simple, everyday diction. So his narrator is definitely talking in the style P&V have captured in English.

      I’ve heard of Grossman, but I haven’t heard of Lydia Davis or Natasha Wimmer. Off to see what they’re about!

  13. April 8, 2010 6:36 pm

    I have to say, the translation is making it so much easier. I am so glad I went and bought a better quality translation-it easier to get the flow and style of the narrator and dialogue down.

    I really loved Part 1 and I can’t wait to dive into the rest, especially since I don’t know the story and it is coming as a surprise. It just seems so much easier than what I thought it would be. But, now that I think about it, I felt the same way when I read Crime and Punishment back in September. I just think I had some preconceived notion that Russian writers were difficult-probably the result of an English teacher somewhere, and I am finding that not to be the case!

    I will say, in answer to your question, that I LOVE Fagles translation of The Odyssey. It is my favorite that I have found, because he really gives it a lyrical style that you can hear being told by a bard. I love that.

    • April 9, 2010 4:57 am

      I’m glad you went and bought the P&V translation as well! I don’t know the story either, although reading Frances’ post told me what a main bit of the plot is going to be. ;)

      Bad English teacher telling you that Russian authors are difficult. lol

  14. April 8, 2010 7:19 pm

    I will be honest, I don’t usually notice the translators. Does that make me a total plebeian? Now that you mention it, I flew through and loved Crime & Punishment, but slogged through Brothers Karamazov. I wonder if that has less to do with the story and more to do with the translation….I will pay better attention.

    • April 9, 2010 4:57 am

      I don’t think it makes you a plebian! One of my majors at college was modern languages, so that’s probably why I’m hyper-aware. lol

  15. April 8, 2010 7:20 pm

    Oh, I forgot, thanks for the suggestion of My Life with the Saints. It looks like a wonderful way to learn a bit more about them and I just ordered it from Amazon.

  16. April 9, 2010 1:12 am

    I own two copies of BK already (B&N crap copy and an illustrated Modern Library version in a nice cloth case) but they are both Constance Garnett translations so I am going to look for a P&V for my re-read! I’m excited since I loved the book already. And what’s a third copy for a fan, right?

    • April 9, 2010 4:58 am

      Oh Constance…she was so prolific but so Victorian. ;)

  17. April 9, 2010 5:49 am

    I didn’t like Crime and Punishment. In fact I strongly disliked it. (I checked my translation – it is Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky.) I love the premise but even though I get Raskolnikov’s moral dilemma, I just found it so self-indulgent and whiny I couldn’t even finish it, I skimmed the last third to find out what happened but by then I didn’t even care. (This is another one I get attacked on a personal level for. Like people telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to read literature. I weep for the American education system when I get these. Hell, you didn’t like Doctor Zhivago but did you get personally attacked for it?!)

    I do have a couple of copies of The Brothers Karamazov to try though, because I like Russian lit and I want to give D another shot.

    • April 14, 2010 2:59 pm

      Really? That’s interesting! lol I can never get into Dickens, or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, so I’m not going to judge you. :) I do want to give Dr. Zhivago another try one of these days, when I’m in the right mood! I hope you enjoy Karamzov more than C&P.

  18. April 9, 2010 9:56 am

    I’ve learned to do my research before deciding which translation to read.

    Pevear and Volokhsnky are definitely the best out there right now for anything originally written in Russian.

    Interestingly enough, when I wanted to read The Three Musketeers a few years ago I started looking into translations and recommendations and guess what I discovered. Richard Pevear’s 2006 translation (which was still pretty new when I read it) was being praised as a return to the spirit of the original. I read it and loved it!!

    So in answer to your question the translator I adore is Richard Pevear.

    • April 14, 2010 3:01 pm

      Yep: Pevear is great with his French translations too! I’m glad we share an adoration for him. :D

  19. April 9, 2010 11:56 am

    Hey – great post, and great blog! Rachel at Home Between the Pages ( sent me your way since I posted about novels in translation earlier this week. The comments seem to be split into thirds regarding translations: Some say the contemporaries of the writer offer the best, others (like you) advocate for the modern translation, and some don’t care.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to keep up with your blog more closely now – you are a fantastic writer!

    • April 14, 2010 3:04 pm

      Thanks Greg! My issue with Victorian translators is that they believed in ‘editing’ the text as they translated. :) I’ll pop on over to your blog soon!

  20. April 9, 2010 2:21 pm

    Lucia Graves. She translated Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s books. Genius. Also, she’s the daughter of Robert Graves, whom I adore.

    • April 14, 2010 3:06 pm

      How neat! Thanks for letting me know about her. :)

  21. April 9, 2010 4:30 pm

    I started this last fall and ended up setting it aside about halfway through book 2. I don’t think it was the book, though, I think it was just my mood at the time. Perhaps I will try it again later this year.

    I love P&V, though I’m familiar with their work mainly through Tolstoy. I also read P’s translation of The Three Musketeers. I thought that Julie Rose’s Les Mis was great too. I’ve read some Fagels translations, but I don’t feel like it’s as definitive as the P&V ones. With the Iliad, for example, I kinda prefer the Lattimore.

    • April 14, 2010 3:08 pm

      I get the mood thing; I set aside classics on occasion as well. :) That’s interesting re: Iliad translations!

  22. April 10, 2010 6:59 am

    I’m glad you hear you’re liking it so far! After I read The Brothers Karamazov, I named my hamster Dmitri :) I read the Garnett translation and still loved it, but really want to read the P&V version. I’m reading their War and Peace right now, and it’s AMAZING. I never really thought much about different versions of translations in the past, but now I realize how much of a difference it makes.

    Lydia Davis did Proust…but she also writes her own short stories that really great. Some of the stories will be lengthier, others are only like a paragraph or even a few sentences long, but either way she writes beautifully.

    • April 14, 2010 3:10 pm

      Russian hamsters! Such fun. :D I LOVE their version of War and Peace. And now I want to read Davis’ version of Proust!

  23. April 11, 2010 4:12 pm

    I was surprised by how contemporary it seems with all the dysfunctional family drama, socialogical issues between rich and poor, educated and non-educated, religious differences. Dostoevsky definitely proves the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same!”

    • April 14, 2010 3:13 pm

      So true Becca! I’m often surprised by how contemporary classics feel. :)

  24. April 11, 2010 5:12 pm

    The Brothers Karamazov = the book I use to make myself look intelligent :)

    I’ve only read the Penguin Classics one, in fact, I’ve never read a P&V trans. perhaps I should(?)

    • April 14, 2010 3:14 pm

      lol! I’d highly recommend P&V when you’re in the mood for a reread. :)

  25. April 17, 2010 7:39 pm

    The only other that I have (knowingly) read translated by P&V is Anna Karenina, which I have read twice–two different translations. It makes me want to reread some others they have translated, because it is such a difference. I was somewhat indifferent to War and Peace, but I’m thinking the P&V translation would improve the experience.
    That scene between Grushenka and Katerina was something else! Poor Alyosha! I think that was a bit much for him.


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